The Beginning of the Reformation
This week we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. October 31, 1517, Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act led to a tumultuous time for Luther, ultimately appearing before Charles V on behalf of Pope Leo X at the Diet of Worms where he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Sheltered by Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle from May 1521 to March 1522, where he translated the New Testament from Greek into German.
At this time in history, the Catholic Church sold indulgences to people in order to gain merit with God with hope of going to heaven. Essentially, Catholic dogma requires people to earn their way to heaven through good works. However, the Church taught that it was impossible to do it on your own works. So the Church offered indulgences for purchase.
An indulgence was basically a receipt that said you had purchased good works from a past saint through the Church. Catholics taught that various saints had done a super-abundance of good works when alive, which created a treasury of merits and graces that could be drawn from when purchased. People would purchase indulgences for self-gain in order to pay for their own past sins, for loved ones who had died, and even for their own future sins.
“I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers and which they spread everywhere among common men. Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation.”
The Reformer then directly addresses the Cardinal, “0 great God! The souls committed to your care, excellent Father, are thus directed to death. For all these souls you have the heaviest and a constantly increasing responsibility. Therefore, I can no longer be silent on this subject.”
Luther objected to the practice of selling indulgences because he understood the crooked practice was for financial gain to the Catholic Church and did nothing to get someone to heaven. There are two errors here. First, no one can gain heaven through good works. Second, the Church was robbing the people while giving them false hope of eternity.
Luther correctly understood what the Bible teaches regarding going to heaven. The Bible unequivocally denies any person the option of earning his or her way into heaven.
Jesus made it clear that the only way to heaven was through Him, not through personal merit or good works. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:7). It is Jesus’ work on the cross that enables us to go to heaven, not our work on earth.
Paul also taught this same truth. It is impossible to earn your way to heaven. He wrote, “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Here Paul teaches that God only saves people through faith. There is no amount of good works that can save a person. Heaven is only possible through God’s grace, unearned favor from God to man.
Paul explained that the just (those who are saved and on their way to heaven) shall live by faith (Galatians 3:11), not by works. There were those teaching that through works a person could go to heaven. Paul called this type of teaching foolish. In reference to those who try to work their way to heaven, he declares those individuals cursed (Galatians 3:10).
Likewise, Paul shared his own personal testimony in Philippians 3. Here he rehearsed all the good works that he had done – works that, if possible, would earn him heaven. He declared all his good works as useless. Describing his relationship with God, he wrote, “…not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9). In other words, righteousness is only possible through faith in the work of Jesus on the cross where God poured His wrath upon Jesus as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (cf. 1 John 2:2).
Luther’s Invitation: How do you get to Heaven then?
Clearly the answer begins with this simple truth: nothing that you can do or can be done for you through a church can earn you a relationship with God or a way into heaven.
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). It requires belief in the person and sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross. In other words, you must trust Jesus’ work to get you to heaven and not your own merit or the church’s.
In Romans, Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified (declared righteous) by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:8-9).
He further clarified, “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation…For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:9-10, 13).
Luther’s Personal Responsibility
Luther was driven by the simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He lamented that the Catholic Church perverted the Gospel and that the Church taught what could only send people to hell not heaven. He understood his personal responsibility in light of the forgiveness of sin.
“Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
Luther faithfully proclaimed this truth 500 years ago.
I faithfully proclaim this truth to you today.
Be reconciled to God.
Turn to God, recognizing your sin and the fact that you deserve hell.
Ask Him for forgiveness of your sin based upon the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.
God promises to forgive your sins and to begin a new relationship with you.
 Kellemen, p. 6.
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